Posts Tagged ‘Edinburgh’

Photo: Historic Environment Scotland

If you are Scottish, there is a chance you might know about the Stone of Scone. If you are not, then you may not be aware of the cultural significance of this lump of rock – a significance signposted by its other name, the Stone of Destiny. There are many stories, legends and theories about the stone, so for the benefit of the unknowing, here is the stone’s brief(-ish) resumé.

Legend says the stone began its journey into legend in Palestine. It provided somewhere for the Biblical Jacob to rest his head whilst he dreamt of the ladder that connected heaven and earth, the preferred mode of travel for angels going up and down between the two realms. At some point, it became part of the personal sacred object collection of an Egyptian Pharaoh, whose daughter Scota fell in love with an Irish fellow and travelled to the outermost reaches of civilisation and founded Scotland. Allegedly. The stone (described in one account as made of black marble, covered in beautiful elaborate designs) was said to have been used by St Columba as a travelling altar, and was so revered in later years that it was taken to Dunadd hill in Argyll where it was used to crown the ancient kings of Dalriada. As Scotland grew as a nation, the centre of power was moved to the middle of the country, and the Stone of Destiny was placed in Scone Abbey. There, it provided historic gravitas and a focus for the coronations of the first Kings of Scotland.

During the turmoil of the Scottish Wars of Independence (brought on by the death of Alexander III in 1286), the English King Edward I laid claim to his northern neighbour in the most violent of terms (not for nothing was he known as the Hammer of the Scots), and ransacked the country. In 1296 he invaded Scotland and stole the symbols of her nationhood; these included the Scottish crown and an alleged piece of the true cross. He also prised up and carted off the Stone of Scone/Destiny and shipped it down to England. The stone, by this point, had undergone a mysterious transformation; instead of a slab of shiny black, inscribed marble, it had become a rectangular lump of Perthshire sandstone. Edward was so determined to crush the Scots and all their pretensions to nationhood, that he had his own throne modified with a special Stone of Destiny-shaped hole in the seat, so that the stone could be slotted in under his backside. And so, in Westminster Abbey, the throne of St Edward the Confessor housed the stone, and received the royal bottoms of every single English King or Queen crowned since the late 13th century. And from 1603 onwards, it saw the coronations of every Scottish monarch too, since the two thrones were joined under James VI and I. There were those who doubted its provenance, saying it was little more than the stone cover for a medieval cesspit, and that the real one was being safely stored, ready for the day when blah, blah.

So……whether you have been paying attention to that history lesson or not, the point is, the stone was and is considered a very important symbol of Scottish nationhood. And Edward stole it. Possibly. No matter that the event took place hundreds of years ago, it has been a sore (and moot) point for Scots ever since.

On Christmas Day 1950 a group of four young students from Glasgow University stole the stone and stashed it in the boot of their Ford Anglia before making a dash for the border. They crossed it too, despite road blocks, and a bit of banter with the policeman who stopped their car (along the lines of: ‘What’s in the boot then, Sonny?’ ‘Haha, oh, just the Stone o’ Scone, ye ken’ ‘Haha, very good son, on ye go’.). The establishment was outraged and after being hidden under the bed of an Orkney minister in Carnoustie (allegedly), the stone was taken, nearly four months later, to Arbroath Abbey. The custodian, a doughty chap called Wishart (another Orkney connection?) is reported thus in the Guardian newspaper:  Mr. Wishart said that…three men carried the stone on a wooden litter up what used to be the nave of the abbey between the ruins of the pillars. “They laid it at the three stones which marked the site of the high altar. They carried the stone in a reverent manner, their heads were uncovered, and it was a solemn and impressive little ceremony. The men shook hands with me and wished me the best of luck and then went. As soon as I knew that the Stone of Destiny had been placed in my charge I locked the gates.” 

The Stone was promptly taken back to England. The abductors had at some point dropped the stone and it had broken in two, whereupon they had cemented it back together. There are some that claim that the stone stolen by the students was never returned to the Abbey; there are tales of a signed scroll hidden in the ‘real’ stone, and yet more tales of brooches and other jewellery pieces containing fragments of Destiny rock dust being passed down through the generations….and there were, so I am told, other unsuccessful attempts to liberate the stone from its wooden confinement in Westminster Abbey.

In 1996, under what kind of pressure I don’t know, the Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth negotiate for the Stone of destiny to be returned to Scotland. On a damp, misty St Andrew’s Day, the Stone crossed the Scottish border at Coldstream, accompanied by a detachment of Scottish soldiers and a piper. There were a few lumps in a few throats that day, as the stone made stately progress up to Edinburgh, transported in triumph up to the great castle on the rock, in Scotland’s capital.

And I knew exactly where to stand to get the best view.

The night before, I had been out late in the Royal Mile. I was dressed in a long black cloak, and I carried a black box containing a leather whip, a fake ear, and a set of keys to the Underground Vaults. There were no takers for the ghost tour of haunted Edinburgh that evening, but I loitered at the Mercat Cross for a while, scanning the deserted High Street for potential customers. I spotted a vehicle trundling through the mist down from the Lawnmarket, and clocked it at once for an army Landrover.

St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

This is not unusual, as Edinburgh Castle is still a working castle and barracks, and we would quite often see soldiers about the place. What was unusual is that the vehicle stopped round the back of the High Kirk of Edinburgh (also known as St Giles Cathedral), near to a flight of stone steps and a door that is rarely, if ever, used. Four squaddies hopped out, opened up the back of the Landrover, and positioned themselves around it. Under the command of an officer, they then proceeded to reach in and bring forth a wooden pallet which bore a large object. It was quite heavy, judging by the way they were straining, and from my place in the shadows, I could just make out that the object was a big lump of concrete. A lump that was exactly the same shape and size as the Stone of Destiny. The four soldiers carried the wooden pallet up the steps and into the back door of St Giles, whereupon the door closed.  The Landrover didn’t move, and neither did I. A few minutes later, the door opened and the soldiers carried the pallet and lump of concrete back down the steps again, before putting it back in the Landrover. They then did it all again. Out, up the steps, in the door, out the door, down the steps, into the vehicle. I was fascinated. One of the squaddies caught my eye, so I asked what they were doing. Practicing, they said. The Stone of Scone was going to be taken into the cathedral for a special service, before embarking upon its final journey to Edinburgh Castle, and they were practicing, to ensure that the transition from Army Landrover to church was smooth.

The next day I chose my spot carefully, and got a ringside view of the Stone being transported into the cathedral. Later that day, the Stone was taken to the castle, where it sits to this day, with the Scottish Crown Jewels as part of the Honours of Scotland exhibition. Whether it is really the ‘true’ Stone of Destiny, I have no idea. And I do sometimes wonder what happened to the lump of concrete.

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In the early 1990s I worked in a bar in the West End of Edinburgh, near to Haymarket station. In those pre-Starbucks days, the large buildings on the corners of the Edwardian terraces were still banks. At the other end of the street could be found the splendidly-named West End Fish and just across the way stood the war memorial erected to the players and supporters of a local football club who had died in the Great War.

Our pub was a mixture of locals’ drinking den (it was a cellar bar) and gastro-pub before they were all the rage. The owners of our place had culinary pretensions, which manifested as Sole Bonne Femme, vegetable crepes and chilli nachos; the one concession to ordinary pub grub was allowed on Sundays, when we did the All Day Breakfasts. You know the thing – sausages, fried egg, bacon, grilled tomato, and occasionally potato waffles – perfect hangover food. They were extremely popular and we did dozens of them.

After 3 years of working in that place I had gone from a fairly chipper and cheeky barmaid to a snarling surly animal, as I slowly realised that whilst bar and waitressing work was great for supplementing the student grant and handy in times of high unemployment, it was not exactly what I had planned as a full-on career. Customers asked for ice at their peril. To prevent me from scaring people too much, I was given kitchen tasks, and proved to be quite apt. I liked working in the warm kitchen, and was fast with the orders, plus I could develop my soup-making skills. Every day, the duty cook had to make a huge pot of soup for the next day, and I got stuck straight in. I befriended the rather shabby greengrocer across the road (the shop was shabby, not the Italian greengrocer or his two handsome sons). They loved me because I bought all the old, wilted, on-the-turn veg; Juliano would save me bunches of sad watercress and asparagus and I would transform them into bowls of (always vegetarian) delight. To this day I maintain that the best soup is made from vegetables that are past their best. As well as these exotics, I experimented with Broccoli and Brie, Stilton and Celery, Cream of Courgette and the good old leek and tattie. I once made a tureen of carrot and orange soup and a regular (nicknamed Chief, because he called everyone…erm…Chief….) proclaimed it to be ‘beezer’ which was a high accolade indeed.

On Sundays the routine was slightly different and I was occasionally on All Day Breakfast duties. I shared this honour turn about with a lad called Gavin, a clever but troubled soul who liked an occasional drink. Gav’s speciality was to take a hot potato waffle, top it with baked beans and grated cheddar, and then stick it under the grill until it bubbled. I was particularly proud of my mushrooms and tomatoes. The months/years wore on. I went part-time just doing lunches, but worked a full day on Sundays. Other employment beckoned and I finally made the decision to leave the bar and stop smelling of deep fat fryers. My last shift was a Sunday and my co-workers Andy, John and Gavin had told me in the previous week that I would have an easy time of it. Gavin would do the breakfasts, the other pair would serve at the bar, and I could lounge about smoking fags and reading the Sunday papers.

For the last time I donned my greying shapeless polo shirt, black leggings and Doc Martens and stomped up the road to work. I had had a few drinks the night before, knowing that the next day would be my last shift, so I was tired and a bit groggy and looking forward to eight hours of tea drinking and toast-eating. I arrived first to find the place empty, so I set about hoovering and putting the chairs down. Andy and John arrived and I announced my intention of getting the kettle on. Ah, they said. There’s been a slight change of plan. Gavin can’t make it. What? Why not? I cried. Well, he was pissed last night and got arrested and spent the night in the police cells. You’ll have to cook the breakfasts.

As fate would have it, it was one of our busiest Sundays for months and I spent hours frying eggs and heating up baked beans, cursing to high heaven and grinding my teeth every time I heard Gavin’s name mentioned. Finally, once all the greasy pans had been cleaned, I poured myself a pint and sat at the bar. I was looking forward to going home, pouring a hot bath, reading a book and having an early night. Andy and John popped up. They waved a card at me and handed over a bunch of tatty Michaelmas daisies. What’s this? My last shift. I was leaving. The end of an era. No word of farewells from the owners (who had not known what to make of the world’s grumpiest barmaid with degrees coming out of her ears), or indeed the rest of the staff. I was quite touched that someone had thought to mark the occasion, and we had a few celebratory pints before I headed home.

My years of barwork did nothing for my lungs or my liver, but they honed my soup-making skills a treat – indeed, where I became a proper Soup Dragon. I met some grand folk whilst pulling pints (including Mr Dragon) and I remember my grubby daisies with fondness. But I still had to cook the breakfasts on my last shift and if I ever see Gavin again I will kill him.

Aster novi-belgii White Ladies

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